Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Bishop Richard Clarke and Making Ecumenism Risky

imageThe Week of Prayer for Christian Unity continues to be marked in parishes and congregations throughout Ireland and the world. Richard Clarke, the Anglican Bishop of Meath & Kildare, speaking at events in Belfast and Armagh, has been making a case for risky rather than comfortable ecumenism.

Interestingly enough, you wouldn’t have picked up on the riskiness of Clarke’s messages if you had only read the report about his Armagh address in Thursday’s Irish News. With the headline ‘Show pastoral care for all, bishop urges,’ the article quoted Clarke’s words about ‘pastoral care’:

There is another step that we should be able to take structurally as well as haphazardly – pastoral care of others in the name of Christ. The pastoral care of God’s people – and by that I mean all God’s people, both inside and outside the man-made walls of the institutional Church – should never be restricted in any way.

That all sounds very fine and good. And given the recent re-launch of this blog with the tagline Building a Church Without Walls, I had to smile at his reference to the ‘man-made walls of the institutional church.’

But the report left me wondering what Clarke meant by pastoral care. It could be construed simply as being nice to each other, especially since his reference to embedding pastoral care ‘structurally’ into ecumenical relationships seems to get lost.

The vagueness of the Irish News report prompted me to search on-line for more details about Clarke’s sermon. A Church of Ireland press release had a fuller version, one that placed more emphasis than the Irish News story on Clarke’s call for ‘greater ecumenism in baptism and Bible study.’

Greater ecumenism in baptism is an idea that has been floating around for awhile, for instance it was recommended in a 2008 article in Doctrine and Life by my colleague at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Dr Andrew Pierce.

Clarke explains it this way:

‘…Virtually all the Christian traditions that have a sacramental tradition recognise the baptism of other traditions as being baptism into the One Body of Christ, and hence something which transcends the limitations of our own particular tradition of the Church … Would a statement of the deepest of all unity not be made if at the celebration of baptism in one particular tradition (in other words even on occasions where we were not speaking of parents belonging to different traditions), members of other Christian traditions were there by proper and official invitation to celebrate the event, representing the wider Church, so that the reality of the entire Body of Christ was symbolised in the celebration? It clearly could not be a feature of every baptism in every church building, but if we believe (as indeed we claim to believe in our creeds) in One Baptism, here is an opportunity to proclaim a unity that we already have in Christ.

Pierce has been more explicit in saying that baptisms could rotate around the churches in local areas: i.e. people of all traditions could be baptised in the Catholic church one month, the Church of Ireland the next, then the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and so on in all the churches which were willing to share in this sacrament.

This is more than simply inviting people from other Christian traditions along. It is all Christian traditions deciding together that they will celebrate baptisms together. I don’t know of any place in Ireland where this has happened yet. This may be a risk too far, perhaps.

I also found extracts from Clarke’s address in Belfast, where he called on Christians to move beyond a ‘safe’ ecumenism:

‘An ecumenism that is wholly safe is not ecumenism at all – it may be good manners but can be nothing more. We are all, in our own way and through our baptism, called to defend the Church of God. We are not, however, called to be the Church’s jailers.’

In this address Clarke said that Christians must be open to being changed by others. The willingness to be changed (rather than to convert others to our point of view) is what makes it risky, as personal change is almost always challenging – as is learning to respect those who are different from ourselves.

To that end, Clarke recommends a dialogue of respectful listening. This is not a sham dialogue in which we assume our way is the only right way and our sole purpose is to unthinkingly parrot what we believe to be ‘our’ church’s position on every matter. Clarke said:

‘Part of what we must set our hearts and minds to, if we truly believe in the ecumenical adventure, is setting ourselves to listen to one another intently, rather than judgmentally. What we are talking about is an openness to the ideas of others that does not merely wish to correct them. In short, a willingness to be changed, perhaps radically, by what we are hearing … We must listen intelligently and attentively to views that seem alien and even less than acceptable to the preconceptions we cherish so carefully.’

Amen to that.

8 thoughts on “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Bishop Richard Clarke and Making Ecumenism Risky”

  1. Although a Trinitarian baptism, made using the orthodox formula, by a person who intends to do what the Church does, there are other issues. To begin sharing and swapping baptism locations between the different religions is a step into religious indifferentism, at least from the Catholic position. Plus, I don’t think you are going to get any of Paisley’s people to darken the door of a Catholic Church. I can’t help but think that suggestions such as this, as well meaning as I am sure it is, are really just the efforts of men to build their own church, without the nuisance of dogmatic teachings.

    Not only that, but the identity of each religious community must be respected and not weakened by efforts such as this. An initiative like this would also cause division within the actual religion itself, given that some would welcome the initiative, whilst others would reject it. Such an endeavour like this represents a pan-religious imperialism that would seek to impose its own relativity and diversity on a Catholic Church which is presently struggling to restore its Catholic identity.

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  2. PS Gladys, please don’t delete my post. I know it is long but it is relevant and I put a lot of thought into it.


  3. Thank you very much for this, Gladys: some inspiring and original thoughts.

    In terms of practicality; I’m not sure that Andrew Pierce’s suggestion is feasible at this stage; not from a theological but simply a social perspective. Baptism, particularly infant baptism, is of course not only a sacrament but a social, primarily family, occasion, and already creates mild tussles between priests who want it performed as part of the ordinary parish mass, thus indicating the welcome of the new Christian by the whole community, and grannies who want something special in the afternoon. The idea of a harassed new mother, already overwhelmed by the life-changing arrival of a baby, trying to organise a baptism with all the complications of catering, travel, Auntie Hilda’s deafness, the toddler’s tantrums and Uncle Joe’s need to be within three paces of a loo at all times, having to explain to her mother-in-law that actually the service will be in an entirely different church, of an unfamiliar denomination, would be a degree of martyrdom before which the early Christians would fall back in awe … But maybe one day.

    Richard Clarke’s idea, however, of having invited witnesses from other churches, seems to be eminently doable and extremely positive. It is a similar idea to that of our own parish priest who points out to the congregation, immediately before we say the Creed together, that this is the creed of the whole church, including our Orthodox and Protestant brothers and sisters. Drawing our attention to the many things that we already have in common, and of which we may not yet be aware, is one of the simplest and most fundamental building blocks of unity.

    Martin is almost certainly right in suggesting that the Free Presbyyerians would not participate in such an initiative but this is no reason for anyone else not to do so. I don’t await Dr. Paisley’s consent for anything else that I do, and I don’t suppose that Martin does either. Like any other inter-church activity, this would involve those congregations which wished to take part and not place any pressure on others who chose not to. As far as our own church is concerned, I am quite sure that it would be popular; lay Catholics would warmly welcome the witnesses from other denominations and would enjoy the opportunity to visit baptism services in other churches.

    I am disappointed in some of the language which Martin uses in his comment here. “Pan-religious imperialism” sounds very sinister but in this context I am not sure what it is supposed to mean. If Bishop Clarke’s intention was really to increase his own flock by any means possible, there would be far more effective ways of doing so. It is ironic that, to many of the smaller Protestant denominations, the whole inter-church movement is in fact seen as a Catholic plot, so much so that we have to be careful about the use of the word ‘ecumenical’ at all. In fact, my experience suggests that, when we are humble, caring and open, it is the Catholic faith to which many other Christians are drawn, inspired by the richness of theology, spirituality and compassionate social action.

  4. p.s. Sorry, that last bit wasn’t meant to sound triumphalistic – I don’t mean that the Catholic tradition is the only one to which others would be drawn, and am painfully aware that not all our social action, to put it mildly, has been compassionate. I’m thinking, obviously, of Dorothy Day et. al.

  5. Tanya:

    ”It is a similar idea to that of our own parish priest who points out to the congregation, immediately before we say the Creed together, that this is the creed of the whole church, including our Orthodox and Protestant brothers and sisters.”

    I think that it is simply not possible to talk our way into unity, and there is no point in pretending it is there when it isn’t. So, if according to the priest we are all one, do we all believe the same thing about what takes place at Mass? Do we all partake of the actual body and blood of Christ? Or is it only a symbol? Is the Mass actually a sacrifice? What about sin? Do we all agree about that? Do we all believe the same thing about the Blessed Virgin Mary? Does our sin not in fact separate us from each other and from Christ?

    We are not all one in our belief. Yes, there is one baptism but it is not true to say we are all of the one faith, protestant, Catholic, orthodox. That’s simply not the case. Even within the Catholic Church, there are a lot of problems. [comment edited by moderator]

    The Catholic identity has more or less collapsed. I wouldn’t welcome any initiative which would further erode the identity, not only of Catholics, but others as well. Each religious group has a right to its own unique identity, without forced efforts to gel them into one when they quite clearly are not.

  6. Obviously we don’t believe all the same things in detail; no one is saying that. The affirmations of the Creed are a framework which we hold in common and that in itself is a cause of great joy and encouragement. We are not pretending that there are no differences but celebrating what we share.

  7. Why does the content of my posts keep getting censored for no good reason? This is ridiculous Gladys.

    Perhaps you’d like to explain to the rest of the class why you have censored my comments?

    You didn’t censor Tanya’s comments, and one of her posts was longer than mine. Is it that what I am saying doesn’t find favour with you? What gives?

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